Magic Poser

My computer is in the shop, but I am happily occupied. I just discovered the Magic Poser app and I’m busy re-sketching my last drawing of Nina, in Conté crayon in my sketchpad, from every imaginable angle. It is really helping me to understand the pose (and others) in 3D. But what’s even better is that it will help me to find the best pose for any illustration.

The app is free in a basic version that includes an adult male model (who looks really funny when posed like a pouting four-year-old), and with the paid version (about €5), you can download other models, including a not-so sophisticated child with an enormous head. That’s what I used to construct these sketches. Of course, you still have to know enough about basic anatomy to add your own details, but it’s sort of like having a very cooperative, if a bit rubbery, model. You can also adjust the light. And it’s much less distracting to the artist than learning a complex 3D program like Blender or Zbrush.

This is also my first post using the WordPress app. It may not be beautiful, but I hope it gets the idea across.

I’ll be back once my computer is working again. But meanwhile this is just the impetus I needed to go art analogue again for a while. Except for the model, that is. When I don’t use pencil and paper for a while, I miss it! Back soon…

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Brush trials

The simple original sketch

This week in illustration, I’ve been doing trials with digital brushes.

The main goal of pretty much all my art activity these days is to develop a working method/style that feels natural and can express whatever I most want to say. And since expression depends a lot on the kind of mark you make, I’m trying to get as familiar as I can with digital mark making. You might call this building a style from the ground up.

Inspired by one of Kyle Webster’s demo videos, I made a sheet of 16 copies of a character I draw a lot. (She has a name and a certain personality, but that’s a story for another day.) Duplicating is easy enough to do on Photoshop. I drew a sketch in digital pencil, copied and duplicated it, copied the two of them and duplicated, and so on until I had a full page. Then I created a mask for each figure in the same way, so I didn’t have to waste too much time cleaning up edges.

Then I got to work applying color. I wasn’t perfectionistic about either the sketch or the coloring. The whole point here was to discover the properties of a few of the hundreds (!) of digital brushes now available on Photoshop CC and figure out which ones were best suited to my working style. I wanted to concentrate particularly on dry media (charcoals, pastels) and opaque paint media (gouache, oil). And I was also interested in grainy effects. In the end, some of these brushes worked quite well for my purposes, and some obviously didn’t!

These trials that worked more or less like I expected, because they allow for a fair amount of control and also I am used to working in traditional oils.

Here are some of the things I was thinking about brushes while I worked:

  • How tilt sensitive is each brush?
  • Which brushes can handle the whole job and which will have to be supplemented with other brushes? (It turns out that some of the more porous ones really need to be used with another brush or a fill layer to render all the details legible.)
  • At what size does each brush make the nicest stroke?
  • With each brush, is it better to use different values of paint to put in highlights and shadows, or is it more effective to just vary the density and let the white of the “paper” show through?
  • Does this brush require extra layers just to keep the marks from getting muddy too fast? (The mixer brushes, such as oils, usually do require extra layers that can then be merged.)
  • The non-“mixer” brushes allow you to change the brush mode (upper left of the screen) to clear, which makes a sort of eraser with the same texture. Which brushes have the most workable “clear mode” erasers? (Remember to change the mode back to normal before continuing!)
  • How can I use the brush stroke and either a “hard” or “soft” eraser to control lost and found edges?
  • How do the brushes affect color intensity? (More than you’d think!)
  • How might changing my tablet/pen sensitivity affect the marks? (I suspect I have a light touch, but it varies with the brush.)

Some trials that were somewhat pleasantly surprising even if I didn’t develop them as far as the others.

A side benefit of all this practice was that drawing my character over and over helped me think more about how she should look, even if I didn’t take her to full finish. Some things I was thinking about while I worked:

  • Which subtle variations of features, and which brushes, are best suited to the character?
  • How much modeling is even needed?
  • How spontaneous can I be?

In search of grainy effects. Some of them I was pleased enough with that I might use them again some time. Others definitely not, but at least I found out!

This is definitely (Photo)shop talk But it does have a more organic significance. About 99% of drawing, and probably any other art, is being so familiar with your own processes that you feel confident in what you’re doing and thus comfortable improvising. Muscle memory plays a big part, of course, and for that, you just have to draw a lot. But there are plenty of other skills you can develop, from creative imagination to visual awareness to intellectual knowledge and theory to simply knowing your tools. All of them (in some form) are important to anyone who wants to be good at what they do.

Also, it helps me to see my own drawings published on my blog, because I see things more objectively that way. It’s like giving myself a mini-critique.

Which versions do you like best, or not? And why? If you don’t know why, feel free to state your opinion anyway. Sometimes intuition has some pretty good reasons of its own!

Turbocharging Your Creativity

Since mid-January I have been taking an SVS Learn “live” course* called Turbocharging Your Creativity. It teaches new tools for generating creative illustrations. The course certainly has taught me some new ideation techniques, but it has also been useful in forcing me to drop my perfectionism and finish drawings relatively quickly. I am also spurred on by knowing that other artists will be evaluating what I post.

The Turbocharging course starts of with quick, limited assignments and then progressively builds on them, so by the end of the ten weeks, the final project makes use of many if not all of the steps learned previously. For that reason, each assignment is more difficult than the ones before.

Today I am finishing the last project for the class, but won’t post it here yet because I want to wait for feedback and make revisions first. I will, however, post two previous assignments below. Both are in black and white, because color is the last step to be added.

The first illustration is from a project in which we researched a celebrity and then created a portrait illustrating something we found out about him or her.  Being a glutton for punishment, I chose someone I didn’t know much about and for whom most of the information available was in Italian: Anna Magnani (Mahn-YAN-ee). I’ve found this star of Neo-realist Italian cinema to be fascinating ever since I saw her in Rome, Città Aperta, a post-war anti-fascist film. She is best known in the US for her Oscar-winning role in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo.

What is so striking about Magnani is that she is the anti-starlet. She has an earthy personal presence that is immediately recognizable and consistent throughout her roles, as well as in her personal life. Magnani was a passionate lover, a heavy smoker and coffee drinker, and not surprisingly considering the preceding, she was also an insomniac. Later in life she took to wandering the streets of Rome at night, talking to prostitutes and feeding stray cats.  So my portrait combined and illustrated those traits:

This is a digital portrait, but since I am used to doing portraits in oils, I used a similar technique, using Kyle Oil mixer brushes (now part of Photoshop CC) in temp layers in order to work “wet into wet” without the whole painting turning to mush. (If you want to learn more about temp layers, you can have a look at Ctrl + Paint’s free video library, which is where I learned about them.) The result is much like one of my oil portraits in its early stages. (I wanted to leave it a bit rough to emphasize Magnani’s character.) But I found the same limitation with the digital oil technique that I had begun to find with my traditional oil portraits: It relies heavily on reference, and in this case I couldn’t find consistent, good quality reference, nor could I take my own.

So for the next project, which involved picking a narrative moment from one of three given podcast episodes, I determined to try something new. After generating a lot of before, during and after ideas from my chosen podcast and narrowing down the choices with the help of my teachers Lee White and David Hohn, I came up with this toned sketch, using a digital technique similar to pastel:

I like to show the sketch to friends before I explain what it is about, but people usually get it right away: The story, from the Lore podcast, is about a 17th c. witch trial. Christian Shaw, an eleven-year-old Scottish laird’s daughter, accused several family servants and itinerants of having bewitched her. In the end, six people were hung. We don’t know exactly what her motive was or how real her symptoms were, but we do know that many years later visitors found a hole in the wall beside her bed, suggesting that someone was feeding her the nails, rocks and feathers she dry-vomited as the main “proof” that she was bewitched. It horrifies the modern mind to think about the people she accused finding themselves caught up in an a vortex of accusation and hysteria in which anything they said or did would be used against them. I have chosen to portray Christian after the executions, looking up at one of her victims and perhaps facing a moment of self-reckoning.

And then, just for dramatic effect, I created a version in which Christian is fully aware of her actions and unrepentant:

And now I’m off to finish my final project and proceed to Bologna, where I will attend my first Bologna Book Children’s Book Fair. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the largest children’s book fair in the world with plenty of opportunity for illustrators, but more about that later. First I have to experience it for myself!

Meanwhile, in case I don’t get to post again before next weekend, Happy Passover and Happy Easter!

 

*SVS Learn includes a free forum, a subscription video library, and individual, classes with feedback, sold separately. The individual classes are conducted through a private bulletin board and videos posted once a week, so people who live in different time zones can all upload their work and get feedback.

Quick illustration update

Now that the wedding is over, it’s fall, and I’ve got somewhat of a routine going, I thought I’d do a quick illustration update.

I have crammed down so much subject matter during the past, first year of self-instruction that it sometimes seems like I’ve got some serious artistic indigestion. Character design, Photoshop, studying favorite illustrators, marketing, perspective and environment, composition, textures and warp tools, endless experimentations with traditional and digital media, repeat. When I consider that this time last year I hardly knew what a Photoshop layer was, I can see progress. Still, it’s an effort not to count the years it’s likely to take to build a portfolio, compare them to the years I have left to develop a career, and suddenly feel quite sober about it. Then enthusiasm kicks back in and I get back to work.

The little painting above is sort of half-baked (that horizon line!), but I am posting it because it gives some idea where I am right now. I’m trying to keep the technique simple, and to that end I’m mostly just painting one character, in digital watercolor. The text was pure stream-of-consciousness because I wanted to consider how it should look on the page. And although I’ve got state-of-the-art digital watercolor brushes from Kyle Brush (as of this week free with a Photoshop CC subscription, but only available with a subscription), there is still an aspect of watercolor that really just begs for the serendipity of traditional media.

Where is all this going? I still don’t know. But at least it’s going.

Illustration resources

This is the post I was going to write before I got sidetracked with Thanksgiving. Though Two Years in Torino is primarily about life as an American in Italy, I think it’s only natural that as I live in Torino longer and longer (way beyond two years, it looks like), not all of my life will be consciously expat. As such, most of these illustration resources are American, but if you’re just itching for some bureaucratic irony and humor from the bel paese, I have one more Accademia Albertina update to publish soon. Also, some day, I hope that my illustration interest and my interest in things Italian will truly intersect.

But for now I have a lot of technical information about art to digest, quickly, and so this year I am taking the efficient, if somewhat lonely route of art self-study online. Online schools seem to be a pronounced trend in the US, and while I might not recommend online study for an 18-year-old getting his or her first degree, as a middle-aged expat self-study has a lot to offer: for starters, convenience of time and place, choice of specialized syllabi, and prices that allow for experimentation. (Note: the link, which actually argues that not even young people should go to art school, leads to yet more online resources.)

I’m not even sure how I first found all these schools and resources that I am about to list (I think I may have begun with Will Terry’s channel on YouTube), but I will say that once you discover a couple of these artists, they tend to lead to one another in a serendipitous rabbit trail. Most of these artists are entrepreneurial in outlook, and therefore they are open to other streams of income than book illustration. For instance, Will has branched out from children’s book illustration to Comi-cons (comics conventions), and has just published a book of his own fan art.

Another thing these artists seem to have in common is an acquaintance with animated film studios. They may not all have worked for one, but the style of modern animation has at the very least contributed to their visual vocabulary. I say this because digital animation is more of a recent discovery for me, and it wasn’t until I saw such films as Up!, Brave and Big Hero Six that I was truly convinced of the potential of digital animation, particularly the lighting. (I watch a lot of animated films during those long flights to the US.)

When I got interested in children’s book illustration again, Comic-cons and Disney films were not exactly what I had in mind, and yet I do think it’s important to understand the trends. I can take in bits of this knowledge and inform my own art.

And lastly, I appreciate that all of these artists have been willing to share some of what they have learned. They do not operate under a scarcity mentality. Instead they assume that the more knowledge is available, the more new opportunities for artists will open up. More art for everyone, more jobs for artists!

So, here’s my list of resources:

First of all, Photoshop is the industry standard software for illustrators. (Ironically, Adobe Illustrator is more for logo design and other projects that require a vector format.) I found a Photoshop offer that allowed me to get just Photoshop and Lightroom (English version) for about $10/month. I don’t know how long it will be available, but even if you are the most traditional of artists, your illustration work has to be camera ready, and Photoshop offers editing tools. How far you take your editing, and their painting tools, is up to you.

Also, although for now I work on a small Wacom Intuos tablet, I want to eventually buy a Wacom Cintiq, which allows you to draw directly on the screen. Both of these devices plug into a regular computer and use a stylus, but since the Intuos requires you to look at a screen while drawing on a separate tablet, it produces certain hand/eye coordination problems that, although they do improve with practice, never quite go away. I spent 50 years developing my drawing hand, and a Cintiq would allow me to fully preserve it in digital form. One reason for my delay in buying a Cintiq, by the way, is that I am waiting to see if an updated version of the 22″ model is released soon.

Now that I’ve listed the materials needed, there is the matter of developing the specialized skills required to use them well. Though I only discovered it somewhat recently, there is at least one excellent, free site that will walk you through the basics of digital painting in Photoshop as well as the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Let’s face it, Photoshop is an overwhelming program when you first encounter it, and you can waste hours trying to resolve seemingly minuscule problems. Matt Kohr’s Ctrl + Paint is clear, concise, and while he doesn’t always still have the practice downloads mentioned in his videos (some videos are several years old and have been moved to the site from elsewhere), you can usually take a screenshot (cmd + shift + 3 on a Mac) and make one yourself. Ctrl + Paint is a great first stop. He also offers paid content, which I haven’t tried yet. And just a note: I usually use Safari, but I find his site works better on Firefox.

My paid instruction source of the moment is SVS Learn.com. The classes seem to be available every so often as real time courses with instructor feedback, and thereafter are preserved for download or streaming. The main instructors are Will Terry and Jake Parker (founder of Inktober). Will and Jake give digital instruction, but never emphasize digital tricks over fundamentals. In fact, most of their courses are just as helpful for traditional media. Their specialty is children’s books, and to some degree, comics and graphic novels. They and other artists present courses on such topics as Painting Color and Light, Developing Interesting Character Designs, Perspective, How to Make Money in Illustration, and many others. I currently have a streaming subscription for $15/month that allows me to watch anything on the site and download the workbooks and other digital aids that accompany the courses. I really have learned a lot. And another nice thing about their site is that they allow you to leave and come back with no hassle (haven’t tried it yet, but that’s what it says on the site). They seem to understand that artists are struggling enough just to stay afloat, so they let you pick and choose what you need.

Branching out from SVS, I have also discovered such sites as Noah Bradley’s Art Camp and Chris Oatley’s Oatley Academy. Yet another paid online art education site is Schoolism. I haven’t joined any of those yet, but they do look like they might be promising. If anyone has experience that they would like to share, or knows other sites of similar quality, I would love to hear from you.

And what 21st century artist’s resource list would be complete without Pinterest? Artists use all the social media sites–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr being some of the more common ones–but the lure of Pinterest is the ability to make your own collections of other artists’ work and reference material, not just your own. When you’re starting out, Pinterest can be a helpful way to organize all the different sources of inspiration you want to keep track of. My account goes through periodic growth spurts and has now exploded to over 1000 pins. Oops!

For inspiration and general knowledge about the industry, I have enjoyed not only Will’s and Jake’s YouTube channels, but also Chris Oatley’s Artcast. Now that I am home alone a lot, I often listen to You Tube or podcasts while I do housework. Some of them are art-related and some have nothing to do with art, but that’s another blog post.

And finally, I have found some rather fun animation resources on TED and even Khan Academy.

 

My illustration adventure has only just started, and yet I’m really itching to get to the point where I can produce something that reflects not just technical art skills, but a mature vision. I think this may be a typical problem with starting a career in midlife. When you’re young, you have tons of energy and learn easily, but little life experience. At my age, you know your own interests and you have tons of experience you want to get out on paper or screen, but need to get your skills caught up quickly. I think a combination of humble and agile mind, and yet confidence about what you are trying to do, are optimal. But most of all, this job requires practice. So that’s what I am going to do now. Hope this helps someone, and thanks for reading!

Signs of life in Italy

In keeping with my accountability posts, I’m checking in today to do a brief report.

I’m happily busy, motivated, and working on my art. I’m involved with family, housekeeping and volunteering as usual, but I’m also learning to paint in Photoshop, which is like opening up an entire bag of caramels and chewing furiously. The learning curve is straight up. So I don’t have much to show for it yet.

So, in the meantime, I offer these small (and one not so small) signs of life in Italy:

Top: The world’s largest elliptical dome, canvas for an extraordinarily Baroque fresco complete with wooden extensions of figures into the cupola, at Vicoforte. Bottom left: The sanctuary at Vicoforte as seen from above amidst the Alban hills (home of the white truffle and Barolo). Both of these photos are from a volunteer day trip with 85 soup kitchen guests–always entertaining!. Bottom center: Chancellery cursive using a medieval reed pen, from Thursday’s calligraphy lesson. Bottom right: today’s lunch, ribollita. Yes, I know, it’s Tuscan and not Piedmontese, but I like to make it whenever I find black kale (I actually forgot what you call this kind of kale in English).

And then there was Wednesday, in which I turned a year older and we had a dramatic election.

Stay tuned! More news soon.

 

New ideas

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One of today’s exercises, on old fashioned pencil and paper. What is going on with this fox’s other leg, anyway? And why can’t I get this photo to load at full resolution? If I thought too hard about these things, I’d never post it, so I won’t!

As perfectionism is a killjoy, I thought I’d post a half-baked update before I figure out how much I don’t know.

I have been looking for a new professional focus for about two years now, but the process is slow, and as usual, it is complicated by the fact that I live outside the only country where I understand how things work. But last year I decided that if I were ever to do art professionally again, it would be smarter to do it digitally. Italian shipping, insurance, bureaucracy and customs are all part of the short answer as to why.

And then last year someone approached me with the idea of illustrating a book. That didn’t work out, but the idea stuck. I had entered college with the idea of illustrating children’s books. I quickly switched to drawing and painting, but that was useful too and by now most of the techniques I would have learned in graphic design have changed anyway.

Finding a local course to learn the new techniques, however, proved difficult. I love the idea of going out daily and interacting with people, but in this case it just didn’t turn out to be practical. First, the Accademia discontinued all individual courses, so I got kicked out of the one I had been attending for the past two years and couldn’t sign up for the Photoshop course I was eyeing. The only other local digital art course I could find was expensive, with inconvenient class hours, and it wasn’t really geared to book illustration anyway.  So I found a course–nay several–online. I found an inexpensive Photoshop subscription. And now I’m studying furiously. I just have to remember to schedule exercise, listening to Italian, and going out with friends!

I know that this is a long shot. The publishing industry has completely turned on its head since I went to art school. Also, it can take ten years to learn all the skills needed, and I’m closer to grandma age than college age. It’s quite hard to break into the market, and for all but a few people, it doesn’t pay that well.

But I couldn’t be happier.  I wake up every morning looking forward to working. I’m not particularly concerned with comparing myself with the thousands of extremely skilled illustrators out there, but more with whether I can accomplish something I can be pleased with. And I can teach English when I have to have money.

One more thing: I’m starting to realize how similar children’s book illustration skills are to film direction skills. You have to know a little bit of everything, and I love that. I used to be quite the Luddite where movies were concerned (I think I watched a bit too much film noir in my 20s), and I still love old-fashioned illustration techniques and paper books, but I have come to appreciate the new overlap with animation, graphic novels, and interactive stories as well.

So, hopefully the learning curve will continue, the work will get better, and I’ll find opportunities to share what I’m doing. But for the moment, back to the drawing board. Have a good week!

Learning Italian

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When I started this blog, I had in mind compiling some sort of guide to what it’s like to live in a foreign country. That got wiped out pretty much immediately by the effort it took to live here, and also by the sense that Italy doesn’t work that way.  But I haven’t completely given up on the idea.

After three-and-a-half years, something is emerging from the fog. But that knowledge is less like bullet points and more like a frame of mind.

Lesson one for Americans: Living in Italy is not like going to Florence for the summer. You really do have to assimilate culturally, and your language skills can’t stay at, “Un gelato cioccolato, per favore.” Drat.

Having to learn a new language is a big part of what makes living in another country stressful. Italy adds to that stress by having serious problems with organization, bureaucracy, and a long-standing tradition of nepotism, but language is even bigger. That’s because understanding what people around you are saying is a big part of absorbing the cultural expectations and figuring out how things work. You need to be able to pick up way more than you are explicitly taught. This is especially true of “hot cultures,” which are more context-based.

Another aspect of learning a new language upon immigration is that it absorbs enormous amounts of energy, especially when you start learning in middle age. It especially absorbs social energy, and you’re often not fully aware of it until you realize you’ve been holed up in your apartment for two days Facebook messaging people in English because you really, really need to stop thinking about every word you say. But the only way to get over that hump is to go out and start speaking Italian!

My own particular linguistic bête noire in Italian is using the formal and informal “you.” This is partly cultural: At my age, how many people do I have to use the formal Lei with, and when can I use the familiar tu? There are more situations in Italy where formality is appropriate than you’d think, and you don’t want to mess it up because you might look rude. Sarie tells me that her music colleagues (who are often in their 30s and 40s) will tell her, “Dammi il tu.” But this never happens to me, perhaps because I’m no longer at the age where people are just starting to use Lei with me. The confusion is especially bad with neighbors and friends of friends because I often don’t know where I stand. If possible, I hide behind the ambiguous voi (“you” plural, which doesn’t have a formal and informal) until I hear the Italian use the second person singular, then I follow their lead. But sometimes the other person does the same thing! And since the tu verb forms come more naturally, I’ve also been known to start with Lei only to revert to tu the minute I stop thinking about how I’m saying things!

As you might guess, automaticity is also important, because it cuts down on the energy expenditure and helps to reduce social awkwardness. As long as you’re aware what language you’re speaking, you can’t fully focus on the content of the conversation. To really make friends and get things done, you need to be able to plow through heaps of meaning without having to detour around linguistic roadblocks. You need to move on from being a Latka Gravas, because there are some pretty unpleasant cultural limitations that come with being an immigrant mascot. And if you are particularly verbal in your mother tongue, these limitations can leave you feeling like two different people. Not pleasant.

 

But there is good news. Once you finally get a handle on the basics, learning another language does start to snowball. You don’t have to be taught every little grammar point. Like a child, or like someone who simply moves to a different English speaking region, you start picking up the inflections, mannerisms, slang, strings of common phrases, and connecting phrases that you need to accelerate into automaticity. Energy is released to pursue other things. Sometimes you don’t even realize how you much progress you’re making until you look back.

Recently Sarie and I went to Dusseldorf, Germany for a few days. German has a good many words that are similar to English and which you can recognize when you see them written on signs, but I really can’t follow the flow of it at all. As we changed planes in Zurich on the way home, Italian crept back into the mix of languages I was hearing, and into the look of the people I was traveling with (Italians dress better!). As I boarded my flight to Milan and the woman in the aisle seat let me into my row, I said, “Grazie!” without really thinking about it. Then I saw that she was reading a German magazine, so I wondered if I had misjudged. It wasn’t until well into the flight that she started talking to her husband across the aisle in Italian. The sense of homecoming, of nostalgia, was palpable.

Funny thing, assimilation.

Inductive reasoning and the academy

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 Powdered pigments at a local art store

This week was the start of the Accademia Albertina. As usual, the Italian inductive-learning process has collided with my not-quite-infallible Italian language comprehension to produce confusion. But slowly, my faulty model of the Accademia is being replaced by experience, and soon enough I’ll know what I’ve gotten myself into.

I arrived at the Accademia on Monday morning at 9:00 to find a courtyard full of Goth-lite teens chatting and smoking. I noticed a sign with an arrow and the room number for my course, etching, but the number was nowhere in that cul-de-sac of courtyard. Eventually, a school employee told me which entrance to use, and I realized that the numbers outside were only for the room just inside the door. You had to walk through several interior rooms to get to the correct one, which wasn’t listed outside.

Finally inside my classroom, I found three other women, none of whom looked anything like the Goth-lite students outside, and none of whom I had ever seen before.

I did recognize the man who had proctored the exam, though. Turns out he was the printmaking professor. He started talking almost immediately, and kept on talking for an hour-and-a-half. He gave a history of the course at the Accademia from the 19th century. He went through every item on the materials list in great detail, without giving out the list. Then he described some of the printmaking procedures we’d be doing.

All this time, students were coming in and out of the room. Some just poked their heads in the door, looking lost. Occasionally some came in and stayed. One group stayed until the professor asked them what their major was, at which point he told them they had the wrong room. Many of the students were Chinese and seemed to know one another well. At one point, all the Chinese students went up to the desk for some instructions from the professor, and left.

The professor explained that there would be a completely different group of students tomorrow, so he would have to give the same information again. Finally I realized that these students all had different majors, and the coming and going corresponded to the number of hours they needed for their major. Never mind that they many of them didn’t get all the information because the professor had started his talk an hour ago!  Eventually his speech slowed and I realized that we could leave. It was 11:00 am. and I didn’t need to return until Wednesday.

This morning, Wednesday, I went back for the figure drawing course, which was what I originally signed up for. I didn’t take any art supplies with me. I figured that since Monday’s etching class was just a presentation, today’s figure-drawing would be as well. Besides, several people had warned me not to bring my stuff until I knew whether the room was well-secured, because there was a lot of theft.

Once again, there was an entirely different group of people waiting to enter the classroom, none of these whom I had seen before, either. The same professor let us in, and other students dribbled in as well (including some of Monday’s), until eventually a group of about 20 students accumulated, mostly retirees. Most of the retirees seemed to know one another, and there was general round of fond greetings and cheek-kissing, as well as introductions to the five or so of us who were new.

The professor started talking again. He talked for an hour-and-a-half. He started out with how it was okay to use student-grade paint, because we were students, and why buy a top-notch racing bike when you didn’t have the legs for it yet? This morphed into a lecture on the spirit of art, and eventually I recognized that he was touching on the same familiar lecture themes I had heard in my years at the University of Georgia: Copying vs. bringing out something of the soul, technical facility vs. searching, the inner silence required for an appropriate level of concentration, modern painters’ appropriation of various aspects of their classical predecessors’ work, etc.

I noticed that he often used modern Italian artists as examples. I knew who all save one of them were, but other than Morandi and Giacometti, they weren’t names American art students would be likely to know. They also called Mark Rothko “Roch-ko.” But then, Americans call Michelangelo “Michael-angelo.”

Eventually the professor left, and the students who had brought their materials started working with the model. Meanwhile, I had asked when the art history lectures were and was told to check with the secretary’s office. So one of the other new women and I went up to the office to check. We saw two class times posted outside the door, but we knew there should be several more, so we went in to ask.

“We’re closed,” said the woman behind the desk.

“Oh, sorry,” said my friend. “We just wanted to know, what are the times for the other art history classes?”

“You know as much as we do,” was the answer.

So, anyhow, at least I knew that there was an Ancient Art History lecture tomorrow at noon. For art history, I have decided to concentrate on the types of art that I can see fine examples of here in Italy, which is to say, Western art through the Baroque. I’ve already seen a lot of first-rate modern art in the US and other parts of Europe, and I am fairly familiar with non-Western art from the Metropolitan Museum.

When I took the entrance exam for the Accademia in September, I had no idea how much work the course involved or what the hours were. When I arrived for the beginning of classes on Monday, I knew there were three subjects involved (etching, the model, and art history) and thought that the course lasted every morning from 9:00-12:00. I had planned my other fall activities accordingly. Now, two sessions into the actual course, I can see instead that etching lasts from 8:00-2:00 on Monday and Tuesday, and the model sessions last from 9:00-6:00 on the other three weekdays, but those hours really depend on how long the model is there, which seems to be until 3:00. I still don’t know when art history is, aside from Ancient Art.

But the inductive reasoning technique (a dribble of data points which, long after you have made your decision, eventually produce a big picture) is pretty typical of Italian institutions. Thankfully, since I am in a non-traditional course without exams or a diploma, I can really pick and choose what times I want to show up, though I am partial to showing up at times when instruction is given.

At least I’m not like a grad-student friend, who started her master’s in psychology last month but didn’t know which program (of three, with different requirements) she had been admitted to, because the results wouldn’t be posted until the morning classes began. In fact, thirty minutes into the first lecture, the results were posted online, but then then they were immediately taken down and students were told that due to some mistake they wouldn’t know which program they were in until they were three weeks into their classes!

And then there’s Sarie, who re-enrolled at the conservatory in June expecting to switch to Baroque violin only to have them close the program. This week classes have started at the conservatory, but she’s still waiting to hear from a private school about an alternative Baroque violin program.

Perhaps the situation in Italy is best summed up in a sign I saw this morning. It said:

“Tranquilli. Ho tutto fuori controllo.”

“Stay calm. I have everything out of control.”

This should probably be the national motto of Italy. And of artists. Which kind of makes sense.

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 A gipsoteca, or plaster cast store, near the Accademia.

Bits, snappy and not-so-snappy

I stood out on my kitchen balcony before 8 a.m. this morning, listening to swallows, which I could see circling above, and traffic, which I couldn’t see circling my block outside the courtyard. I had gone to hang out a towel and been charmed into staying. The sky was utterly clear, and the temperature was cold for late May (48/10 degrees).  I was (and am) wearing a pink wool sweater set as an homage to the two seasons between which the city is choosing.

Then I went inside and made a second caffè macchiato.  The sun is now slanting golden on my fake birch cabinets from IKEA. It looks warm despite the fakery.

I wonder, when I go outside our courtyard and cross C.so Matteotti, will I have a clear view of the mountains?

I’m alone. I am frequently alone now, and I’m coming to terms with it. Last night I sat down and taught myself the first of the Goldberg Variations, which I have loved for years. It’s not performable yet, but I practiced with interest for two hours. I also drew a quick sketch Virgin statuette from the Cloisters--twice, because the first time I botched the structure. The one below has problems as well (as pretty much any 15 minute sketch will), but I’m putting it in as an incentive to make myself practice.

Virgin. Sandstone, polychromy and gilding, France 1247-52, from the cathedral of Strasbourg (47.101.11) Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters.

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Yesterday in Italian class I learned the congiuntivo imperfetto and the congiuntivo trapassato.  So now, if I could only remember how to conjugate even the most basic verbs in the present tense on the fly, I would be able to say the most complicated things in Italian–statements of possibility and emotion that occurred and continued in the past. I think you can make poetry with those!

On Tuesday I made a chicken broth (with the feet, of course) and yesterday I made a potato leek soup for Sarie and Alberto with some of it. We talked about film ideas and told viola jokes in two languages. Bob is in Vienna.

I’m continuing to read Psalms every morning, and often I sing traditional hymns. Sometimes I literally sing them in the closet.

I’m reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien again.  Of course I read them for the insight into how he wrote The Lord of the Rings, but what I really like about them is the inclusion of bits of side trivia, such as the following from a letter to his son Christopher:

“When fermentation was first managed, the beer was only in birch tubs and it foamed all over the place, and of course the heroes cam and lapped it up, and got mightily drunk.  Drunk was Ahti, drunk was Kauko, drunken was the ruddy rascal, with the ale of Osmo’s daughter-Kirby’s translation is funnier than the original.  It was the bullfinch who then suggested to Osmo’s daughter the notion of putting the stuff in oak casks with hoops of copper and storing it in a cellar.  Thus was ale at first created…best of rinks for prudent people; Women soon it brings to laughter, Men it warms into good humour, and but brings the fools to raving.  Sound sentiments. Poor old Finns, and their queer language, they look like being scuppered.*”

Italians traditionally don’t drink to drunkenness.  They consider that something that American tourists do, especially college students.  (In case you were wondering what their stereotypes of us were.)  But in this generation, things seem to be changing.  Sarie had to enter some data from an anonymous survey on various consumption habits for a school project.  Only two students whose data she entered had not gotten drunk. Some were as young as 14. My Italian teacher thinks this is an attitude imported from northern Europe. Of course it has been a problem in the US at least since I was a teen.

Some of the lines from Tolkien’s letters, such as the following, stand quite nicely by themselves:

It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!”

Which begs the question: Is this a snappy bit?

*The last line is in reference to the Finns’ tendency to be dominated by other countries.